An Amazing Movie: “Amazing Grace”
The movie “Amazing Grace” chronicles the struggle, physically and politically, of William Wilberforce against the slave trade in late 18th century and early 19th century Britian. To this movie review amateur, it is well-written, and very well-acted. And its story is a powerful one, regardless of your religious persuasion.
It is a little hard to follow for some, though. While I was able to follow the timeline of the movie, one of my daughters noted that she had trouble with that. The story starts chronologically, but at one point jumps 15 years ahead to where Wilberforce meets his future wife, Barbara Ann Spooner. At one of their meetings, he spends the night relating to her the events of the skipped 15 years. We are shown what happened, and occasionally jump back to William and Barbara. It allows William to comment to her on what he was thinking at the time without requiring him to recite some soliloquy during the showing of the events themselves. Finally, one he has caught her (and the audience) up to the moment, the movie continues chronologically from there.
Flashbacks aside, the movie holds many ideas for the viewers to contemplate. Some are related to religion, some are related to politics, and some address how the two intermingle. And yes, they can intermingle without becoming tangled. Such are the examples that need to be understood, especially in this present age.
First of all, we see that God honors diligence. Throughout his life, Wilberforce never gave up his cause. This is certainly not to say that he never thought of packing it in given the meager advances early on, but he ultimately kept up the fight until he got his country to turn around. In all his struggle, we see his appeal to what is morally right, a conviction that God gives him and which propels him forward each step of the way. Not as much is made of his religious convictions during the movie as I would have hoped, but there is definitely a point at the beginning where we understand the genesis of this impetus–particularly his own conversion experience of sorts, where he says that God found him rather than vice versa–and a bit more at the end as well. Ultimately, he presses on toward the goal and attains it. God honors his years of perseverance.
But as I said, sometimes his perseverance flagged, and that is where another important idea comes in; that the fellowship of like-minded people is a great help in those difficult times. When they first gather together a group of ministers, former slaves and MPs, it’s quite a meager number. But it’s enough to bolster Wilberforce’s spirits and continue the fight. Notably, not all these participants are of the same religious persuasion as William’s, but that’s not really an issue and isn’t one in the movie. They all share the belief that the slave trade should be stopped. Many times, what’s morally right is apparent to those who don’t share our same religious beliefs, and sometimes Christians are reluctant to accept the aid of those who are not “one of us”. Sometimes that’s warranted–underlying motivations can be working at cross purposes–but it shouldn’t be an automatic reaction.
Which brings me to the next idea, that not all moral causes are solved by appealing to morality. Wilberforce’s speeches regarding the slave trade included the conditions of the slave ships, the deaths involved while on ship, as well as what sort of treatment they’d expect when they arrived, notably in sugar production. All of this, unfortunately, didn’t get past the MPs for whom the slave trade was primarily an economic issue. If you think about it (without giving too much away about this plot point), the solution that really sealed the fate of the slave trade had little to do with the ethics of it all. The solution was part economic and part political, but it, too, was in essence morally right and achieved the desired effect. I imagine Wilberforce understood Jesus’ words:
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
And in understanding this, we find another idea worth considering; Christians should not fear politics. For many, it is a necessary evil; certainly the Founding Fathers took a dim view of governmental power and the corruption that spread so easily in its confines. Nonetheless, many a confidant, include the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” himself, John Newton, discouraged Wilberforce from leaving politics after his conversion. To Newton and to Wilberforce himself, doing God’s service and serving in Parliament could be entirely compatible, and indeed the former could be accomplished by the latter. There is also an example in this movie about a politician sticking to his or her principles that could be taken to heart. Not everyone is up to the challenge of holding political office, to be sure, but you don’t have to be an MP or a Senator to make changes for the good in government. Being involved in politics, even if that just means understanding some of what’s going on, is certainly a worthwhile effort for any Christian. One might even say that, while we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, in a representative republic it is our duty to be keeping our eyes on Caesar to ensure he doesn’t stumble.
The converse of that thought is also true; politics should not fear Christians. Who a person is and what their beliefs are should not disqualify their ideas. To use the current vernacular, was William Wilberforce trying to shove his view of morality down Britain throat? Should his idea been labelled “theocratic” and dismissed out of hand? Was he unable to properly represent the atheists in Yorkshire because of his religious convictions? If he had been a United States Representative in the 21st century, something tells me he would have been decried as someone who hated our beloved separation of church and state. This is not a blanket approval of all politicians who call themselves Christian, nor a blanket endorsement of their policies. But in far too many instances, terms like “theocrat”, “religious right”, “homophobe”, “Christianist” and so forth are thrown about to cut off the debate. Most of our country’s founders were either Christian or held Christianity in high esteem. There may be good reasons why the principles they wrote into our laws are good ideas. Perhaps those religious convictions have some merit.
In the end, there is plenty to take away from this film regardless, as I said, of your religious persuasion, or even if you have no persuasion at all. The fact that the movie itself is of a very high quality makes it more likely that folks will be seeing it, and I certainly recommend that you be one of them.
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